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Game 7 Afterwords: Where Did the Good Dallas Stars Go?

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The Dallas Stars that nearly made the Conference Final are nowhere to be found these days

Dallas Stars v Buffalo Sabres Photo by Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images

Clothes still on, wake up on the floor

Don’t think I need to make this trip anymore’

Cause half of me knows it’s gonna get dark

But when you come around, I fall apart

***

“No death, no doom, no anguish can arouse the surpassing despair which flows from a loss of identity.”

-H.P. Lovecraft, from “Through the Gates of the Silver Key”

***

I’ve said a couple of times since the spring that the Stars were probably playing a bit over their heads to get as far as they did in the playoffs. Ben Bishop was unreal, their invisible depth scoring was just visible enough, and a team that was in serious danger at one point of missing the playoffs altogether found a way to end the season on a relatively high blue note.

Right now, the Stars are stuck with the unenviable task of figuring how the team went from “good, but perhaps not that good” last year to, well, really, really, really, bad this year.

How bad are they? Well...

  • The Stars are 30th in the league in goals scored per game. (Only 15th in goals allowed, though, so hey, great job, PK!)
  • Their power play is as bad as it gets, tied with their own penalty kill for goals scored on the season (one).
  • Actually, I take that back: Arizona, Anaheim, Ottawa and the moribund New Jersey Devils are all 0% on the power play so far. Positive note!
  • Their goalies haven’t stolen them any games at all.
  • Their usually great players have all had some truly forgettable moments, with Benn’s giveaway Thursday to allow the game-tying goal being a prime (but by no means a unique) example. Heiskanen has gotten walked a couple of times, Klingberg’s less-good decisions are bringing out the “Bring back Hatcher!!!” folks again, and Seguin and Radulov just aren’t finding that hot streak that scorers look for.
  • Their shutdown, third-line center who doesn’t really score much is -7. He is also the only Stars player to score a goal in the last two games.
  • Mattias Janmark is second on the team in scoring. That’s great for Janmark, but he has four points in seven games. That’s not exactly the sort of total you’d want at the top of your leaderboard.
  • Jamie Oleksiak has more points than John Klingberg and Joe Pavelski, and the same amount as Alex Radulov and Jamie Benn
  • The Stars’ best player this year—and by a wide, wide margin—is a 22-year-old whom they sent back to the AHL last year.

You could go on with facts like these, but why? You know the Stars are bad right now. The tougher thing to do is to come up with solutions.

***

Hey, remember that period against Anaheim in that video, there? The Buffalo game Monday was almost one year to the day after the Stars overwhelmed John Gibson, one of the best goalies in the league if not outright tops in the last five years. They set a franchise record for shots on goal in a period, and Gibson was pulled from the game in an act of mercy more than strategy.

So the obvious question: what gives? How could the Stars ingest Montgomery’s “relentless” system so quickly last year and choke so severely on it this time around?

It’s a tough question, but one thing that shouldn’t be glossed over is the context of this year’s start. Specifically, the quality of competition. The Stars have played Boston (5-1-0), Washington twice (3-2-2), Detroit (3-2-0), Buffalo (5-0-1), St. Louis (3-2-1), and Calgary (2-3-1) to start the year. When the worst team you’ve faced was the top team in the Western Conference last year, I’d say you’ve had a tall task.

Also, the Stars didn’t exactly have a beautiful, perfect run last year. Montgomery pretty clearly tightened the reins as the season went on, with the Stars slowing down their counterattack in favor of ensuring good tracking and protecting against shots in the low slot. This team, you may recall, earned the ire of their owner before New Year’s Day. Maybe rocky autumns are just going to be the standard around here.

More than the quality of competition, though, the Stars have also had the densest schedule in the NHL, tied with the Jets. Both teams have played seven games thus far, more than any other squad. They’ve played seven games in 12 days, all against quality opponents, and it hasn’t gone well. Teams talk about needing a reset when things go rough—it’s why pitching coaches will do a mound visit after back-to-back home runs, for instance—but there really hasn’t been much time for the Stars to gather themselves yet this year. As a result, time is already ticking loudly on their season at an impossibly early point.

But excuses, right? All teams play hard, and having no regulation wins in seven games is just flat garbage, isn’t that what we’re supposed to say? After all, the Stars failed to win. They failed us, who watch them and root for them. How dare they.

I must have started writing about the Stars out of some measure of frustration mixed with hope, six years ago. It’s the lot of Stars fans (and of most every team) to have hope rewarded with pain, and this season has been a lot less mixed than others, so far. Those looking to decry a paper tiger are finding vindication around every corner, while those desperate for the wins they were assured would come can only ask why, why, why? This team’s record should not be this bad, should it?

In some ways, I’m sad to say, it should. On a per-game basis, the Stars are still what we have come to know as a Jim Montgomery team:

CF (shots for): 30th

CA (shots allowed): 7th

xGF (expected goals for): 29th

xGA (expected goals against): 8th

All numbers per Natural Stat Trick

The goaltending is around 20th in the league, and the power play is dreadful. In large part, that’s your difference right there. The Stars are still keeping their opponents’ chances down, broadly speaking. Nonetheless, a chess game isn’t won merely by limiting your opponent’s options, but by forcing them to make suboptimal ones. And the Stars aren’t going to force anyone to do anything if they don’t start scoring goals themselves.

Montgomery talked in the postgame conference about how the team needs to take advantage of the weakside winger. You saw Justin Dowling and Nick Caamano get a couple of looks by going wide with speed and getting the puck turned around the corner and towards the net. In an ideal world, their breakouts should be quick, up the wall, and done cohesively, allowing them to minimize risk while attacking with speed. It sounds great, and it’s not that dissimilar even to Lindy Ruff’s approach back in the day, when the left wing lock was the bread and butter of their quick transition game.

The difference lately—or rather, one of many differences, most of which I am still trying to figure out—is that the Stars aren’t transitioning nearly as quickly as they did five years ago. And, much as it might ring hollow in the ears of some fans, the reality is that the core of this team is much, much older than they used to be. The Stars don’t have the speed throughout their lineup that they once did, due both to roster/draft decisions and the passing of time. But when you’re primarily focused on keeping the other team out of the house, you’re going to need an extra couple of moments to get your keys and leave when it’s safe to do so.

Both systems can work when executed well. Ken Hitchcock’s Stars were rather gaudy in their underlying metrics, as their chip-and-grind style was probably more literally relentless than even Montgomery’s; all but a few players were required to do very specific things with the puck in specific places, and that made for brutally boring games.

But then, did you watch the first period in Buffalo today? That was rough, rough, rough hockey, with Ralph Krueger’s Sabres ceding few counterattack chances to Dallas. Then the second period arrived, and Dallas got burned by a freak penalty. Or did they?

In fact, the Sabres did to the Stars before that icing (and subsequent delay of game call) precisely what the Stars did to the Ducks last year. They relentlessly, diligently, and intelligently overwhelmed them, and the best power play in the game right now moved the puck with speed, and a clear shooting lane was filled with a beautiful shot. 1-0 Buffalo, thanks to their power play.

The other goals had their lapses, too. Sam Reinhart’s shot went along the ice and under a slow-to-react Bishop, and the chance probably should have been better defended by the Stars to begin with.

Taylor Fedun inadvertently started an odd-man rush against when he pinched in an effort to maintain an offensive-zone possession, only to see the Sabres get to the puck first, leaving him in the dust. Jeff Skinner then reminded us and Ben Bishop that he is very good at scoring.

***

It’s excruciating to watch this team fail. Just read the comments, you know? People get angry when their team doesn’t do as well as they should (in our eyes) be able to, and we want reasons. We spit vile words about laziness and idiocy as though we somehow have more of a vested interest in the team’s outcome than the players themselves do. Surely they aren’t winning because they choose not to try. Why else would a good team be this bad?

I sometimes forget the simple fact that sports are really, really hard. It’s why we watch them. These athletes get burned at this level for tiny, tiny mistakes. Their games have to be so flawless just to make it to the NHL in the first place that when we start to see things getting out of whack, it looks cataclysmic. But these are the same players who played at a world-class level for years in a row, and they only have more reason than ever to keep doing so, now.

But it’s all about adjustments, in the NHL. Adjusting to the other team’s 1-3-1, how they navigate the neutral zone—did you see the Stars stretching the neutral zone later in the Buffalo game, by the way?—and how your own team is meshing, or isn’t. As hard as it is just to keep your own game NHL-ready, you also have to make sure you’re working well together, covering the ice you’re responsible for and exchanging and overlapping and interchanging without leaving a small gap for the other team to exploit, like good teams will.

The smallest mistakes can kill you, and the Stars have made plenty of them.

The Stars’ power play is maybe the biggest thing killing this team right now. Most games in the NHL are close ones, these days. Heck, the Stars had five one-goal games to start the season; you know this to be true. A couple extra power play goals at the right times, and they’re looking at a 3-3-1 record. Not great, but not awful, especially after a helter-skelter start against great competition.

That, of course, isn’t where they are, though.

***

The Stars have, for the better part of four years now, been intentionally playing a style that shrinks their margin for error in hopes of avoiding bad mistakes and ugly losses. And, defensively, it has largely been successful. The Stars’ PK has been good for a few seasons now, and their goalie probably should have won the Vezina last year. And, at its best, it got them to game seven against the Blues, again.

If last year’s playoff run was an eerie repeat of 2015-16’s 13-game set in some ways, then the start of this season is way too similar to 2016-17, in all the worst ways. Injuries (albeit not to top-line players), lack of scoring, and goaltending regression (remember how good Niemi was to start the 2015-16 season?) all bit them hard then, and they’re having similar struggles this year.

In 2016-17, Dallas had a woeful 1-7-0 stretch in February that took them from a borderline playoff team (21-20-10) to a lottery candidate. (Which worked out all right for them, by the way.) This 2019-20 team’s 1-5-1 stretch isn’t quite that bad. They were allowing almost four goals a night during that eight-game span in 2016-17, whereas these Stars are allowing just over three. Small consolation, I suppose, but it underlines the point: bad things can happen to a lifeboat in the ocean when you decide to trade the oars for bigger bailing buckets.

Montgomery and his staff know they need the offense to start paddling again. This team stopped treading water a long time ago. But how are they going to do it? Well, maybe with a less hands-on approach than you might expect. At least, for the moment.

The only thing I’ll say is that it reminds me of how Dave Tippett took the Stars into the Colorado mountains instead of onto the practice ice after they lost the first few games of their series against Colorado a decade and a half ago. But honestly, I just don’t have a strong opinion about it. These players look all sorts of tangled up right now. The coaches are doing what they think is best for these guys. If they figure it out, it’s better for everyone. If they don’t...well...

***

In every professional sport, when bad stretches like this happen, we all start speculating about when the head coach should be fired or the underperforming players traded. In the vast majority of cases, it is easier (and less risky) for the team brass to move on from their coach. Especially in a salary cap league.

First, though, let me say that it’s still early. The Stars aren’t last year’s Ducks, miserable in almost every way. They look bad right now, but they have flashed some very good things at times, too. I think there is hope for this team, this year. But we know how easily hope can evaporate, how bad runs can pile up. Time is of the essence, but there is still some of it.

As for Jim Montgomery’s job security, I think we need to remember that Jim Nill probably doesn’t get another kick at the head coaching can, unless Tom Gaglardi is exceptionally trusting when it comes to owners and their GMs. Unless this disastrous start reaches unfathomable depths, you probably won’t be seeing pink slips right away. But then again, who knows? Certainly this team’s front office marches to the beat of its own drum.

Oh, and if somehow Montgomery were let go just 90-some games into a four-year deal? Well, John Stevens was fired by the Kings 13 games into a season, so at least he knows what one side of that equation is like, eh?

Seriously though, I think the team’s underlying numbers are pretty clear: Dallas just needs to juice the offense a bit more, and that starts on the power play. Goodness knows one of these four NHL bench bosses (past and present) should have some ideas for how to fix what ails it. Joe Pavelski was never going to score 40 goals again, but he’s still a perfectly fine player. Once the rest of the team starts breathing more easily, I think we’ll see some respiratory recovery throughout the team’s entire cardiovascular system.

Score on the power play, and you’ll be hanging in games, keeping them tighter. Scoring goals gives you more margin for error, and the Stars desperately need every bit of leeway they can find, right now. They know how to make games boring and safe; now they just need to get a lead to protect with that boring, safe hockey. That’s kind of what the power play is for. Goals beget more goals, but playing tight, safe hockey while squandering the few chances you do get? Well, that’s cruising for a demoralizing bruising, and that’s just what Buffalo dealt them Monday afternoon, as well as in a few other games this year. Most of them, really.

At the moment, they just don’t have that heroic element of their team that can lead them out of the dark night they’ve wandered into. Maybe it’s a player in Cedar Park, or on another team (though a trade still seems unlikely). The Andrew Cogliano/Devin Shore deal last year came in a similar situation, when the Stars felt they needed better leadership and speed, and went out and got it. If you’re itching for a trade, I hope you’re ready to see a similar sort of deal go down. When we start clamoring for change of any sort, sometimes the results end up being a fair bit different than what we’d envisioned. The Dallas Stars know all about that.

In the meantime, we can only watch and wait. You can hope for a firing, a trade, or just for the team to start winning again, quickly. You are far from alone in that hope. I can promise you that, if little else.